If you’ve ever taken part in activism or social justice campaigns on or off campus, you’re probably familiar with the concept of “allyship.” In honour of National Aboriginal Week, we’re exploring what it means to be a strong ally to Canada’s Indigenous peoples.
What is an ally?
Being an “ally” means recognizing your privileges and expressing solidarity with groups that are marginalized or oppressed. Historically, allies have aligned themselves with LGBTQA communities or people of colour. Being an ally in Canada today also means extending support to Indigenous populations.
Being an ally is not as simple as it may seem initially. Being an ally requires great sensitivity, as allyship deals directly with vulnerable populations that may be hesitant to accept your offers of solidarity. Yet allies must also be firm in their advocacy and speak up in instances of microaggressions or bigotry. Finally, allies must recognize that despite whatever individual privileges they may be unfairly benefitting from, solidarity does not come from a place of guilt. Rather, allies should seek to spread equity for the sake of justice and ensure that everyone is treated with the same levels of support and protection.
Importantly, be aware that being an ally is not an identity but is an action. A true ally does not call attention to themselves or wear the term like a badge of honour to be praised. A better representation of allyship is the idea of a “behind-the-scenes” supporter who recognizes when to support key speakers, when to amplify their message of equality, and how to operate effectively in the background. Sometimes being a great ally is as simple as listening to and learning from the experience of others!
Whether you identify as an ally or not, it is important to understand the many nuances of this vital role in order to achieve social justice for all Canadians. When expressing solidarity with oppressed or marginalized populations, there are a few things worth remembering:
Recognize your privilege.
Firstly, to be an effective ally you should recognize the privileges you may (unknowingly) be benefitting from. These privileges are diverse and range from the colour of one’s skin, sex or gender, class, whether they are able-bodied, or their cultural background. In addition to being conscious of privilege, be aware of microaggressions or situations that undermine power of oppressed groups, such as instances of racist, sexist, classist, ableist, or colonialist/post-colonial prejudice. If you witness the privileging of one individual over another, point it out. By calling attention to unfair actions, you can prevent others from unwittingly benefiting from unfair discrimination. You don’t want to pick on people for the privileges they may not know they have, but rather engage them in a thoughtful conversation. Opening communication on these issues is one of the best ways to spark change and raise awareness about systematic privileging and discrimination.
A true ally is aware of their privilege and is willing to speak up about it without taking attention away from those who are marginalized.
Be informed about the historical, socio-political context that frames our interactions with Indigenous peoples.
Colonialism set a lot of precedents that continue to affect the way we see Aboriginal peoples. Understanding the history of institutionalized racism allows us to recognize where damaging stereotypes and microaggressions originated, and how we may have an informed discussion about them and move forward. It is important to recognize the long and deeply entrenched history of Aboriginal activism and marginalization. A good ally takes this historical context into consideration, thinking critically about institutions like the Residential School System that perpetuated frameworks of oppression. Being aware of history is a critical aspect to being an ally.
Being an ally is not a part of your identity: it is an action you take.
There is a lot of misinformation circulating amongst “allies” about what it means to be in true solidarity with oppressed groups. Allyship is an action and a process, and it is ongoing and challenging. Activists have coined the term “ally theatre” to connote those allies who seek to take the attention from those marginalized and see being an ally as almost a “performance.” This is not helpful. Again, allies should operate behind-the-scenes and seek neither attention nor credit. Recognize that it is ultimately up to those oppressed to decide whether or not you are an ally; it’s not self-proclaimed.
Recognize Indigenous leaders and respect their authority.
As a person of privilege, never presume to “speak” for Indigenous people in Canada. Ashley Bach, Indigenous student at McGill, states, “It is important to not speak on behalf of Indigenous peoples; we may be marginalized, but we aren’t incapable of speaking for ourselves.” Similarly, allies should respect and resist tokenizing leaders in the movements. If you do find yourself in a speaking position, give credit where credit it due: to leaders, the movement, and those seeking justice.
Practice active listening.
Being an ally means asking lots of questions, but more importantly, it means lots of listening. As an ally, you need to listen to as many different voices as possible to better understand the realities of marginalized groups. You will recognize that not all Indigenous leaders will agree on all topics, but getting different perspectives allows you to have a better understanding of the issues at hand. Remember, you won’t know what that community truly needs if you don’t ask them or listen!
Constantly renew your commitment to the cause, even if it causes you to feel uncomfortable in the process.
One of the best ways to be a strong ally is to constantly assess your actions and efforts towards the cause. Should you aspire to be an ally, it is a full-time job. If a friend makes an offensive joke, it’s your duty as an ally to discuss it with them and think about how that comment is participating in marginalization.
Recognize that ignorance has a place in allyship.
True allies are encouraged to reflect on and embrace their lack of knowledge regarding the group’s marginalization. Allies should keep in mind that they are learning as they go through the process of supporting Canada’s Indigenous population. As an ally, you will always be learning. Canada’s Indigenous peoples are diverse, with unique backgrounds, cultures, languages, and histories. Allies cannot expect to understand such complexities fully, or at least not quickly, and should strive to be continually learning.
Not all Indigenous peoples want you as an ally.
This may seem harsh to someone who is trying to be supportive, but it happens and it absolutely must be respected, even if you consider yourself an ally with the best intentions. Rather than trying to argue and convince an individual that you are “on their side,” respect their boundaries. Also, recognize that this doesn’t mean giving up on activism; it’s just a reminder that allyship must consider and respect the emotions of all marginalized individuals. It is ultimately their decision whether or not to include you in their efforts.
Being an ally means standing up for the rights of those oppressed and aligning yourself with those who are marginalized. However, recognizing your privilege as an ally is a complicated balancing act of knowing when to listen and when to use your voice. Never try and use your position as an ally as a promotion for your own platforms, but rather use it to amplify the voices of those who are often silenced. By standing in solidarity with Canada’s Indigenous peoples, we can build relationships and take down prejudices that have historically stigmatized and divided Canadians.